So, what makes Twilight Princess so special? Well, it’s partly a question of balance: balance between the old and new and balance between the big and small. On the one hand, it’s only building on the elements so well established in Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker. The structure couldn’t be more traditional Zelda – leave the village, become a hero, tackle three temples, then wait for the twist that tells you there’s more to come. Yet, on the other hand, the game never feels like a retread. For one thing, since Ocarina of Time the Zelda team has grown more adept at throwing in impressive action sequences to build momentum and keep things spicy, and here these are more cinematic and ambitious than ever before. There are fantastic battles with Link or horseback fighting against the odds, protecting loved ones, and slashing frantically left and right. There are scary bits where creeper creatures appear from nowhere. And of course, there are the boss battles – an area in which only Capcom seems in the same league when it comes to creature design and thrilling spectacle.
And the team has thrown in some new elements. The most obvious becomes apparent only a few hours in, as mysterious forces grab Link and when he awakens he has been transformed into a wolf. The change isn’t permanent, but it is recurrent, and results in some superb levels that go heavy on the platform-hopping and puzzle-solving. What’s more, the regular switch to a dark ‘Twilight’ world gives the game the dual world theme that’s at the heart of the best Zeldas.
Make no mistake – this is an enormous game, and one you could spend upwards of fifty hours playing. Even Hyrule itself has grown in scale since we last saw it. The grand open spaces are grander and more open, the towns and cities are larger and more populated. Amazingly, you get the same buzz you get seeing Zora’s domain in all its glory that you first got when you saw it in Ocarina of Time, for the reason that it has become more magnificent to match your 2006 expectations. Lake Hyrule, meanwhile, is a huge mass of water that practically begs you to dive in and explore.
Yet, at the same time, Zelda hasn’t lost its intimacy. It still finds time for the smaller moments that bring the characters to life and make the story – while simple and often slightly cheesy – so engaging. The Twilight Princess team knows that we don’t play Zelda just to storm through the main story; we play it for the little stuff too. We want the silly collecting side-quests, the goat-herding, the fishing, the archery contests, and once again Hyrule is partly a playground in which your oddest whims are frequently rewarded. Twilight Princess is a dark tale – with the possible exception of the melancholy Majora’s Mask, the darkest Zelda yet – but that darkness is always balanced by a childlike sense of fun and a peculiar sense of humour. Simply put, it’s a real joy to play.